August 26, 2011

Lives of Quiet Dignity

Madagascar, one sometimes forgets, is a country of incredible crushing poverty, a result less of disease and not of war, but of decades of poor governance and missed economic opportunities. Of a population just over twenty million, 75% live below the poverty line. Half are under the age of eighteen and, with the average mother giving birth to 6.6 children (one of the highest birthrates in the world), the population is currently due to double every twenty years.  15% of Malagasy children don’t make it to their first birthday and more than half are chronically malnourished. Madagascar’s literacy rate hovers at 45%, and a third of children receive no formal education whatsoever.
            It is as easy to quote statistics, though, as it is to disregard them.  In these sweeping generalizations, people become numbers and numbers are easily divorced from reality.  The prevailing poverty of Madagascar, however, is quite real.  It is expressed a thousand ways by the people who bear it: swollen bellies and bowed legs, names signed with an ‘X,’ heads bald with skin fungus, gaping holes where teeth used to be, clubbed feet, humped backs, and hare lips.  It is all around: crumbling infrastructure and dirty water, empty medical clinics, devoid of doctors and supplies; schools, where they are to be found, falling to pieces, with leaking roofs, broken windows, and rickety desks; a country with few jobs, scarce opportunity, the most limited social mobility.
            Life here, on this beautiful island, is hard.  Annually, a three-month hunger season must be endured: this year’s rice is planted but not yet ready to harvest, as the most intense period of manual labor coincides with last year’s haul running low.  Markets sit empty; no fruits, no vegetables, there is nothing to buy, nothing to sell.  Commerce essentially grinds to a halt as the rains pour down.  Whole villages are cut off as roads turn to mud and rivers run too high to navigate.  Cyclones arrive with little warning to wreck a fragile world of palm houses and rice terraces.  The only choice is to hunker down and bear it.
            It is a delicate task, when you are privileged, to write about poverty.  It is easy to paint with a broad brush, to hide behind numbers, to evoke pity rather than empathy.  It is easy, too, to adopt a sort of arrogance of privation and self-sacrifice, to assume that brief residence in this world of poverty gives one the right of callousness towards it.  I catch myself thinking sometimes “hunger is not hardship here,” or, “early death is not tragedy, it is just a normal part of life,” and while these things may be true, it is not necessarily my insight to provide.  I cannot speak for poverty, because while I may live within its confines, I will likely never live within its mentality.
            There is something I do believe I can say, though, something that is far too often set aside in conversations about poverty and by those who study and work to alleviate it; something that photographs often fail to express and numbers do entirely no justice to.  This is something I witness everyday as I move through the fringes of life in Madagascar.
            An American author of an era departed once famously said that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  Often it is this desperation and only this desperation that we see in the impoverished people of this world.  From afar, we heap pity upon them and lament their struggles.  Maybe we feel a little bit good about how bad we feel.
            But the vast majority of Malagasy people are not aware that they are such objects of pity.  Simply because they are not.  Their lives, just like those of the world’s wealthier half, are defined by their passions and routines, are cast within a swirl of characters and dictated by personality all their own.  They are just people living life.
            What we do when we describe the poor in sweeping terms, when we rely on statistics to say what we don’t know, when we are dutifully moved to a distant pity, is reduce their individuality to a caricature of their poverty.  We deny them both their dignity and their humanity.
            What should be said then is that while the poverty of Madagascar is indeed crushing, the people of Madagascar are far from crushed beneath it.  The resilience of the Malagasy people, their joy in a difficult life, their sometimes boisterous, sometimes quiet dignity is a most human experience.  It is this humanity that should never be disregarded or devalued in discussions of how to alleviate their poverty.

August 25, 2011

This Strange Peace Corps Life

Life in the Peace Corps Madagascar is weird, unfailingly, unflaggingly weird. But after some time, I just forget it. It is only when things proceed to a further extreme that I realize anew.
            I am, for example, perfectly at ease being dive-bombed by bats when I step outside with my headlamp at night; it is what I deem an acceptable risk (and when I say “perfectly at ease” I mean that I have ceased screaming and thrashing). But when I spend nearly an hour trapped inside my mosquito net, desperately needing to pee, waiting for the world’s worst sonar-equipped bat to recognize that the wide-open door is the only escape, then I think to myself: this isn’t normal, this is not one bit normal.
            But this is my life: ninety-five degrees in the shade; a half hour late and the first one there; a thousand lost staring contests a day; bug spray after a bucket bath; scorpions in my shoes and centipedes in the bed; rats, the Resident Evil; continuing adventures in Katie Cannot Cook.
            The heat, and the strange things it does to one’s mental capacity and physical bearings, becomes a non-entity as a result of its very monotony. One hardly pauses to observe a friend curled up in a sleeping bag in the, wait, check the thermometer, ninety degree weather. I have learned to minimize movement to prevent excessive sweating (there is, of course, no preventing the standard variety). And I still chew gum, even though all the sugars have long secreted out and I find myself with an unappealingly slippery and flavorless piece (gum, after all, is more about the entertainment).
            I have accepted the hazards of distance and comically-restrained communication: the tenuous connection and awkward delays (“you go…no wait, sorry…you first…oh, I, sorry, no you…YOU DAMNIT!”); the involuntary Toy Story alien voice, “You have written me a letter, I am eternally grateful;” the passing of notes on a countrywide scale; the sad, near-friendship devastating announcement that as we’re not on the same cell-phone carrier, we may not be able to talk much for the next nine months…sorry.
            Even the many varied aspects of my community integration no longer seem all that odd. The fact that I routinely witness the not-a-shred-of-clothing nudity of every person in town, from the postman to the mayor to the tomato lady (apparently such is river culture); to the three primary flavors of my diet- salt, oil, and coconut- from which all other flavors somehow emerge (though I suppose this is less of a miracle than the primary colors, as all my food tastes essentially the same; to the way that two taxi-brousses hurtling towards each other, slowly and casually reclaim their respective lanes and pass with the narrowest of margins, while the whole time I am screaming in my head, MAYBE A LITTLE MORE URGENCY!
            When I am occasionally struck by the oddity of this life, I try to utilize the nostalgia curve (one day I will find this all terribly endearing/adventurous/authentic/young and free/insightful) without getting too far ahead (right now I find this to be none of those things). Passing premeditated nostalgia aside, it is just another day. Call it strange but I would not have it any other way.